Google Pixel 2 XL review: Hugely disappointing

Say it quietly but, on the face of it, there’s nothing all that special about the Google Pixel 2 XL. It might be the search giant’s flagship smartphone for 2017 but there isn’t a single thing it does that rival manufacturers haven’t done already – and done very well for that matter.
Want a screen with barely-there bezels and curved corners? Take your pick. A phone that responds if you squeeze it? Yep, someone else got there first. How about water-resistance, an 18:9 aspect ratio display and ridiculously high prices? So passé, darling.
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Google will, of course, point to its camera processing technology and the exclusivity of the Google Pixel launcher software as features to mark out the Pixel 2 XL from the Android competition. And, to be fair, in the absence of major problems elsewhere, those would be enough to push the Pixel 2 to the top of the tree.
The trouble is, as we’ll see shortly, there are problems with the LG-built Pixel 2 XL and they’re serious enough to trip up the Pixel 2 XL before it even gets started.
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Google Pixel 2 XL review: Screen has-been
Despite looking so good on paper, it’s the display that undermines everything. The specifications are enticing. It measures 6in across the diagonal, its resolution of 1,440 x 2,880 means photos, videos and game graphics look stupendously sharp and the P-OLED panel ensures there’s oodles of lovely contrast.
Fire up “Costa Rica in 4K 60fps” on YouTube and you’ll witness a freakish amount of detail, rich colours and smooth motion. Placed side by side with a Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus the colours look a tad more balanced and a lot less over-saturated.
Load up a web page or ebook and you’ll immediately spot a big problem, however: tilt the screen even slightly (left, right, up or down) and the screen takes on a blue-ish tint.
You might be more forgiving than me, but I read a lot on my phone and I find it horribly distracting. Plus, if you’re not demanding perfection from your smartphone screen when you’ve spent £799 on it, there’s something terribly, drastically wrong.
That’s not all, though, because technically, it’s a touch below par as well. Brightness peaks at 445cd/m² (and it’s been reduced after a recent software update), which is fine and means it’ll be readable in most conditions but there will be situations where you’ll have to shield the screen with your hand to read it. For the record, the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus’ display peaks much higher than this; in auto-brightness mode, it can go higher than 900cd/m².
Then there’s the irritating flickering it exhibits when transitioning from one brightness level to another in auto-brightness mode and the fact that some users reported screen burn before after using the phone after only a few short days of use. Google has since responded to this issue with a software update that, among other things, reduces maximum brightness by 50cd/m2, and a statement that says the Pixel XL’s display is not different to rival displays in this regard. However, with all the other issues with the Pixel 2 XL’s screen, it’s hardly encouraging. 
Put simply, the Pixel 2 XL’s display is not good enough. Not for a phone that costs this much or even one that costs half the amount. It’s a long way behind its rivals and, to be frank, a huge disappointment that undermines the phone as a whole. And that’s a huge shame because there are so many things that the Pixel 2 XL gets right.
Google Pixel 2 XL review: Design
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Disappointingly, though, quality seems to have taken a small step backwards. Compared side by side with the same scene shot on last year’s Pixel XL, the Pixel 2’s footage looks too dark and oversaturated; freeze the frame and it’s clear, too, that there’s a less detail being captured as well.
Here, at least, the Samsung Galaxy S8 has the upper hand. I shot the same scene at the same time as the Google Pixel 2 XL and saw videos just as smoothly stabilised but with crisper details and far more balanced colours.
It isn’t as if the Pixel 2 XL compensates by including loads of fun features to play around with. You get a slow-motion mode, which captures at 120fps or 240fps, and that’s about it.
Finally, to the front camera, which is pretty darned good. It’s an 8-megapixel effort and can use the display as a makeshift flash in low light or backlit conditions. It produces cracking selfies that burst with texture and detail. Once again, there aren’t too many toys to play around with – just a skin-smoothing beauty mode and countdown timer – but you’ll be so pleased with the results you’ll probably not be all that worried.
Google Pixel 2 XL review: Android 8.0 Oreo
On the software front, the Google Pixel 2 XL is largely the same as last year’s Pixel from last year. It’s running Android Oreo, of course, but this doesn’t bring too many dramatic changes with it.
There are a few visual tweaks, with most obvious of these being the repositioning of the search box to the bottom of the homescreen and a new-look, slightly transparent app drawer, but this is no dramatic departure. The new time, date and weather app is an elegant addition, too, displaying important notifications such as calendar appointments alongside the basic info.
The best new feature is Pixel 2 XL’s always-on display. This displays the time and date and notifications on the lockscreen, even with the phone on standby, as you’d expect it to, so you don’t have to keep switching on your phone to check up on things. And it has a neat trick up its sleeve: it’s constantly on the listen and will show you what music is playing nearby, right on the lockscreen.
The feature, called “Now Playing” does this locally, using a database of music stored on your phone, meaning it isn’t using your data to discover what you’re listening to. That’s good to know. It works uncannily well, too: classical music is a bit of a challenge, but for pop music, all you have to do is wait 30 seconds or so and the artist and track name appear automatically in the lower portion of the screen. It’s very clever indeed, and doesn’t appear to negatively impact battery life.

Next, there’s the “Active Edge” feature, which we’ve seen before on the HTC U11. All this means is that there are pressure sensors built into the frame of the phone that let you squeeze to activate various functions. It’s not as fully featured as it is on the U11 – you can only activate the Google Assistant and silence incoming calls – and it’s a bit of a gimmick. Plus, while you can activate Google Assistant from the lockscreen with it, you do have to unlock the phone to see any results.
Google Lens, however, is far from an inconsequential gewgaw. Using Google’s scarily powerful computer vision AI technology, this promises, eventually, to be able to analyse images live from your camera, identifying objects and text, delivering useful information to you on the fly. Think live translations of foreign languages text or even ratings of restaurants and bars when you point your camera at them.
When Google showed this off at its I/O developer conference earlier this year, it was one of the most interesting technologies announced. Alas, what you get on the Pixel 2 XL is merely a preview. It doesn’t let you analyse the world around you live, only after the fact in Google Photos.
And it’s a little hit and miss right now, identifying a bottle of red wine as “liqueur”, the BT Tower as simply a “control tower”, although it did identify the Golden Gate bridge successfully from a holiday snap and, impressively, a Redwood tree from the Giant’s Forest in California’s Sequoia National Park.
Google Pixel 2 XL review: Verdict
It’s a little disappointing that the Pixel 2 XL’s potentially most useful – and exciting – feature isn’t fully ready yet but, to be honest, I’m not at all convinced by the phone as a whole anyway. Yes, it has the latest, fastest processor inside it and, yes, it’s a competent all-round flagship smartphone. It looks nice, feels nice and has an excellent camera.
However, for every positive point, there seems to be a negative nasty lurking just around the corner. The software is great but Google Lens isn’t ready yet (and Active Edge is a pointless bagatelle). The camera is brilliant but video quality has taken a step back from last year, and the screen… well, let’s just say once you see the colour shift taking place you just won’t be able to unsee it. Trust me on this one: it’s a deal-breaker.
And so, although I’d very much like to, this is not a phone that I can, in its current state, recommend. If you desperately want a Google phone you’ll have to opt for the much smaller, less attractive Google Pixel 2, or simply choose the best big-screened phone on the market: the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus, which you can now buy for a lot less than the Pixel 2 XL. Maybe Google should have chosen HTC to build the XL after all.
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